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Natasha Tripney: After the Edinburgh 2019 comedown, we should ask – what would a kinder festival look like?

Bryony Kimmings. Photo: Richard Davenport Bryony Kimmings. Photo: Richard Davenport
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On the last day of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Bryony Kimmings tweeted that the “Edinburgh comedown is real. Be extremely kind to yourself. Don’t dwell, or grieve or wish you were back. It’s over, you did it, and it’s time to sleep and heal and decompress.”

She’s right, of course, but it’s not always easy to follow that advice. The fringe experience is intense. It can mess with your body clock; it can mess with your menstrual cycle, and it can be a jolt when all that suddenly stops. It can be incredibly destabilising, like waking from a particularly vivid dream.

While the fringe experience is so consuming that it’s difficult to question or critique the system while you’re in its grip, the comedown can make it equally difficult to focus on the issues that need addressing (which are myriad) after the dust has settled. The highs linger longer than the lows in the memory. And the best time to have conversations about ways of creating change is often the time we’re least emotionally equipped to do so.

The fringe is always a good way of taking the cultural pulse, and one of the subjects that recurred again and again was care – the social and emotional cost of care. It was addressed explicitly in the Wardrobe Ensemble’s devised play The Last of the Pelican Daughters, Charley Miles’ Daughterhood and Isabelle Kabban’s Love (Watching Madness); in Lung Theatre’s verbatim piece about young carers Who Cares and How Not to Drown, based on actor and writer Dritan Kastrati’s first-hand experiences of the foster care system. It was addressed less directly in the many shows about trauma, mental health and recovery: art as an act of care.

Love (Watching Madness) review at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh – ‘moving and nuanced’

In a political climate that’s increasingly hostile to the vulnerable, and with vital services being stripped away, it’s understandable that there would be so much work focusing on people looking after one another. But it’s also ironic within a framework of a festival that seemingly measures success solely by expansion and number of tickets sold: some 3 million tickets this year.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and never used to be this way. The Edinburgh International Festival was set up in 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”.  While the fringe, which sprang up gradually around the edges of the festival, never specifically had this mission, it feels like it’s only morphed into this ravenous bazaar in the last decade or so.

International arts festivals are not just global showrooms: they allow for the sharing of stories and ideas across borders. In her newsletter this week, theatremaker and dramaturg Selina Thompson, who’s previously written eloquently about her experiences as a performer on the fringe, called on artists to imagine a better, kinder sort of Edinburgh Fringe. What would it look like? How would it work? What sort of welcome would it extend to people?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world; it draws makers and audiences from all over the world. Its size is one of the things that makes it overwhelming, but it’s also what makes it remarkable. The potential for collaboration and communication is vast. It could be radical and beautiful. It’s just hard to dream big when you’re wrung out, hard to agitate when your energies are spent.

Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/

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